Now that he's on his fifth solo album, John Stephens, aka John Legend, has nailed down who he wants to be. After starting out as a promising G.O.O.D. Music-era Kanye West affiliate — hip-hop-forged and all that on 2004 debut Get Lifted — he subsequently veered perilously close to lounge lizard/dinner theatre status on sophomore efforts. Overly earnest sanguinity was and is not a good look, but thankfully, Legend's gotten his style down pat: piano-driven soul that's not above appealing to pop sensibilities.
Lead single "Love Me Know" features strong pop songwriting and construction. It's inoffensive, mainstream-minded and straightforward — a chart topper, in other words. But more interestingly, Legend manages to keep pace with the fierceness that is Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard on the bold, rocking "I Know Better." Elsewhere, "Same Old Story" is an attractive offering, and he settles into a meditative mode on the Miguel-starring "Surefire." Legend's not afraid to drop f-bombs on the new-wavy "What You Do to Me," nor to take listeners to church on "How Can l Blame You" — but the Chance the Rapper guest spot on the too-safe "Penthouse Floor" feels a little like a wasted potential.
Legend has earned bank on that kind of safeness, but it's hard to listen to earlier material without wondering what a more hip-hop-minded Legend might sound like today. Regardless, though: Darkness and Light comes off balanced and bursting with humility knowing and being what it is — mainstream soul framed by pop parameters. (Sony)